Writing Under Duress

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writing under duress

Especially during a pandemic, writing often happens under trying conditions. The right strategies can help you manage stress, fatigue, and distractions to move your writing forward.

Feeling exhausted? You’re not alone. Everyday living during a prolonged global crisis can be draining and writing under such circumstances can feel like walking through cement.

Amidst the anxieties of our current inside-out reality, I’ve focused on strategies that have helped me write even when exhaustion and distraction scream loudly. I hope they can help you stay productive through unexpected and adverse situations.

Don’t force it (unless you have to)

If you’re feeling spent and you simply have no words left, listen to that. Unless you’re under a deadline or other inflexible time pressure, it’s perfectly acceptable to be kind to yourself, take a nap, or do whatever else will recharge you mentally and physically. Come back to writing later.

That said, don’t confuse exhaustion with procrastination. If you suspect that you’re simply using “I’m too tired” as an excuse to stay away from a project you find intimidating, it may be time to double down and engage. Chances are that pushing through fear-based avoidance will leave you feeling invigorated and empowered rather than exhausted and drained.

Eliminate distractions

This is important, even in optimal circumstances, but when you’re coming at a project from an emotional or physical deficit, it’s all the more vital. Put in earplugs, shut yourself in a closet, put your phone in a drawer and your kids in front of a movie — whatever you have to do to allow yourself to focus, if just for a few minutes, on nothing but writing.

Outline your work

Even if you haven’t written an outline since eighth grade, now is the time to return to the practice. Mapping out writing ahead of time can keep your work manageable and your progress steady; the less organization you have to keep in your head, the more attention you can pay to laying down one effective sentence after another.

Ride your focus

Under constantly difficult circumstances, it can be hard to plan your work — after all, how do you know when you’ll have the concentration to craft that all-important opening paragraph, articulate your hero’s penultimate heartbreak, or summarize your argument with the vital punch it needs?

The key here is to be flexible and work on whatever you can at any given moment. If you find yourself with ten uninterrupted minutes to write but can’t thread a sentence together to save your life, consider focusing on brainstorming ideas for your piece’s title or, as described above, try tossing your thoughts together in outline form. If you walk away from a writing session with only a few new phrases or a slightly clarified direction, it’s still progress.

Similarly, if you’re moving nowhere on a certain project, pull something else up that feels more natural. Use your time to move that alternate piece forward and come back to your original work-in-progress when you feel you can.

Keep language simple

Especially when you’re physically exhausted or emotionally depleted, it can be easy to retreat into complex, circuitous sentences that entangle your work rather than enhancing it. Be aware of this pitfall, fight the urge, and keep your sentences short and powerful.

If you need an example of language that’s compact and effective, I recommend looking at a reputable newspaper of your choice. Trained journalists often do an excellent job of pulling maximum impact from minimal text.

Be meticulous in your review

When you’re stressed and distracted, mistakes are easy. That’s why proofreading and fact-checking become even more important under extreme circumstances.

If I’m over-tired but have to finish a piece before more rest can be found, I often take a sentence-by-sentence, or even phrase-by-phrase approach, both looking for writing errors and double-checking my work against my source material (if applicable). Once I’m confident that the single sentence I’m examining is thoroughly legit, I bold it and then move on to the next. This sort of piecemeal approach makes final reviews of complex pieces more manageable, even when my focus is far from sharp.

Save your work

If you’re exhausted and working on a computer, it can be easy to forget to hit “Save.” Make a point to do this every several minutes. If necessary, use a timer to stay on schedule.

Take pride in every word

To quote a blog post I recently wrote for the National Endowment for the Arts:

There’s peace to be found in letting creativity fill whatever form and minutes it can. In the brief, sacred time after my young children begin to dream and before practical matters grab me again every evening, I work on a novel-and-orchestral-composition hybrid project that is approaching 100,000 words; even three new sentences or one fresh viola line is a victory, and I’ve often found those phrases and notes to contain more life than so many that I wrote before Coronavirus was a word even five-year-olds know.

The same applies to any creativity pursued under duress. Especially in extreme and difficult circumstances, make a point to find pride in every new sentence you complete — and use that positivity to spark your inspiration for the next sentence after that.

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